Searching For Meaning In A Cheap Toaster

Carl Sagan once said that if you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe. In his book The Toaster Project, author and artist Thomas Thwaites describes his effort to build a cheap plastic toaster from scratch, and what the project taught him about material goods, self-reliance, international commerce, and globalization.

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IRA FLATOW, host: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. You know, we talk a lot, and we talk to a lot of people on this program about making things themselves, people who make stuff, inventors and maker fairs and things like that. Maybe it's - you see a robot or a flying machine, a fancy wheelchair. But my next guest has a story that is guaranteed to impress, even awe many do-it-yourselfers.

It's all starting with a desire to build a toaster. A toaster, you say? Big deal. Where are the laser beams, the arduino chips, the heavy-duty stuff that we see at all these fairs? Well, wait until you hear the story - or better yet, wait until you read it.

Joining me now is Thomas Thwaites. He's author of the new book "The Toaster Project," just out from Princeton Architectural Press. He's at BBC Studios in London. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

THOMAS THWAITES: Hi, Ira. Hi.

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FLATOW: Hi.

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THWAITES: Happy to be talking to you.

FLATOW: Happy to have you - what came over you to decide to build a toaster from scratch - I mean, literally, from scratch? You have to go out and make the material, all the materials yourself.

THWAITES: I mean, yeah, that was the dream.

FLATOW: What were you thinking?

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THWAITES: That was the attempt. I mean, weirdly, you know, I think it began just with, you know, a book that I read when I was sort of a teenager, you know, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" sort of series. And there's, like, one small paragraph in that book where, you know, the hero, Arthur Dent, sort of finds himself marooned on a kind of planet populated only by, you know, a kind of technologically undeveloped people.

And he sort of - and he's there, and he kind of expects that, okay, yeah, sure, you know, he's kind of got - 20th-century man, you know, he was educated and all that kind of thing, and he kind of expects that he'll be able to sort of, you know, just wow them with his sort of command of technology and, you know, science and become, like, hailed as a genius.

But I don't know. After a sort of few days in the village, he kind of realizes that actually when he's just by himself, you know, he can barely make a sandwich, let alone a toaster. And that kind of conundrum, like, just from that paragraph, kind of stuck with me until I sort of thought okay, well, maybe - you know, I mean, I've got Wikipedia.

I mean, you know, Arthur Dent, he was a bit of an idiot. I'm sure I could make an electric toaster myself. So...

FLATOW: Sure. It's the most basic product everybody has in their home, right?

THWAITES: Exactly. I mean, you know...

FLATOW: What's so hard about this?

THWAITES: Well, yeah, I mean, exactly. I mean...

FLATOW: But you found out...

THWAITES: ...it feels like the last discussion. Yeah, well, actually, yeah. It sort of - I realized it was like the height of arrogance to believe that I could actually make an electric toaster from scratch myself, you know, all by myself. You know, because I sort of - okay, so I thought, okay, I'll reverse-engineer, you know, a cheap toaster, and kind of went out and bought one, took it home.

It kind of cost a few pounds, and, you know, took it apart. And then this kind of thing, it was made from kind of about 400 different kind of - different bits, if you see what I mean...

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah, little pieces there.

THWAITES: ...all put together into this object. And, like, these bits were made of, you know, 100 different materials, kind of hard to estimate where, you know, what different material is, if you see what I mean.

FLATOW: Yeah, well, you describe in the book how you had to go out and teach yourself how to be a metallurgist, how to be a miner. You had to - you had to mine the ore that you were going to make the toaster metal out of. You had to teach yourself how to make the wiring, the plugs, all from scratch. You didn't buy - nothing off the shelf.

THWAITES: Well, I mean, so the kind of - the beginning was, okay, I'm going to make everything from scratch, and I'm not going to use any tools which weren't around, you know, kind of before sort of the Industrial Revolution, or whatever. But then I don't know. I got the train to the iron mine.

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THWAITES: You know, so I went to this iron mine with an empty suitcase and sort of spoke to this old miner and, you know, eventually dragged back, like, a suitcase full of iron ore. But, you know, I'd kind of got the train to do that, if you see what I mean. Should I have gotten, like, a horse and cart? And then, you know, I kind of quickly realized that, you know, from scratch, you know, all by myself was just - that's kind of Unabomber cabin territory, if you see what I mean.

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THWAITES: You know, that's like, okay, start in the forest, and then first I'll make myself some shoes, and then some clothes, and then develop farming and all that kind of thing. So, yeah. So I kind of thought, okay, from scratch means from the raw materials. So, yeah, I had my suitcase full of iron ore.

And then, you know, how the hell do you kind of make this rock into metal, which you can use to make, you know, just the framework of the toaster, or, even better, like, the spring to pop up the toast?

And so, yeah, I went to - you know, knocked on the door of Rio Tinto Chair of Advanced Mineral Extraction, this Professor Cilliers, the Royal School of Mines here in London, and, you know, asked him: Okay, how do I make - you know, how do I turn this rock into iron?

And, you know, basically, you know, he - I ended up going to the library. You know, he was really helpful, but...

FLATOW: But you had to build a furnace and everything to smelt the ore, and it came out, and it just crumbled in your hand, the first little wire in there.

THWAITES: Yeah. I mean, you know, that was like another moment when, okay, so I was looking through the undergraduate textbooks, and, you know, nowhere it tells its - does it tell you, okay, step one, take your rock, and then put it - you know, dig a hole and then - you know, that's not the kind of thing.

So I ended up going to the history of science library and looking in this - you know, the first textbook - in the West, at least - written about metallurgy and, you know, these kind of beautiful wood cuts of, you know, peasants shoveling rock into a sort of, you know, a kind of fire pit, basically. And that's kind of what I ended up doing but, you know, using a kind of dustbin and a leaf blower instead of, like a, you know, proper furnace and a set of bellows.

And then I, after kind of a day and a night smelting my rock, I kind of dragged it out of the fire and sort of, you know, lifted up a hammer and, you know, began beating it, and it shattered because I hadn't kind of done it correctly. I just didn't have the kind of - the sort of the skills and the wisdom to sort of - to do this process, which is kind of more art than science. And, yeah...

FLATOW: Right. It didn't work out...

THWAITES: ...and so I ended up - eh? Sorry?

FLATOW: I said those first steps were kind of tough. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking with Thomas Thwaites, author of the book "The Toaster Project," and the cover itself speaks 1,000 words of what this toaster looked like, because you also had to make the plastic outsides of the toaster, which you had no experience working with plastic, either, did you?

THWAITES: Yeah, I mean...

FLATOW: That didn't turn out so well, either, did it?

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THWAITES: Yeah, no. I mean...

FLATOW: How do you make plastic from scratch when you don't know how to...

THWAITES: Well, okay. So, plastic comes from oil, right? It's, like, based on sort of fossil fuels. And, you know, after trying to persuade a big oil company to, you know, send me to an oil rig so I could kind of get myself, like, some - a jug of oil from source, they kind of - they weren't into that idea.

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THWAITES: You know, I sort of ended up looking around for other ways. You know, you can make a kind of plastic from potato starch. And so I tried that and kind of mixed up this, you know, this kind of - it's kind of like - you know, like, sort of snotty goo in a big pot and tried to, like, mold in my kind of mold, which I chiseled from a block of wood.

And, you know, there's a reason I think why most of the plastic around us isn't made from potato starch currently. It's because it's just not developed to a stage where - basically, it was, my potato plastic kind of cracked, and it's not very good material for making toaster cases out of.

And, you know, and it sort of - and that was something that, you know, came out with - okay. So we've had, you know, the Bronze Age, you know, copper, you can get copper. Iron, I mean, I just about managed iron. Steel for the spring, no way, and plastic, you know, the plastic age began, what, like 100 years ago, or whatever. And that sort of difference in time scale, you know, between some, a couple of thousand of years, versus a hundred years.

FLATOW: Yeah, you telescope, like, 5,000 years into a couple of months learning how to do all those things.

THWAITES: Yeah, I mean, and that's the story for everything. Like a car, you know, the wheel was invented, what, you know, in pre-history kind of thing. You know, so everything, even a toaster is, like, this collection of knowledge which spans, you know, the history of, kind of, human thought, in a way.

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FLATOW: So what did you take - what did you learn, though? So you actually got the toaster together. You put it together. One thing it did not do - it did - it, you know, it worked for how long when you got it working?

THWAITES: I don't know, about, kind of, five seconds. This is after nine months and - of traveling around the U.K. and sort of, yeah, spending quite a lot of my...

FLATOW: And you're feeling about...

THWAITES: ...money.

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FLATOW: Did a little mushroom cloud come up out of it when it...

THWAITES: Basically, yeah. I mean, yeah. It was sort of - it just like electrocuted itself. It just kind of melted the element which I painstakingly sort of drawn out on the wire-making machine in, like, the jewelry department and, yeah. That - yeah. It just kind of melted itself.

FLATOW: So your toaster was toast, basically.

THWAITES: Exactly...

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THWAITES: ...yeah, yeah. But I mean, I was actually sort of, well, relieved that I didn't electrocute myself or anybody else, because I'd never been able to make any plastic for the wire insulation, you know? So there was 240 volts going through this bare, homemade copper wires from my sort of homemade plug, which I sort of cast in a cuttlefish shell. And so that was the first good thing. And the second good thing was the bit was meant to get hot got hot, rather than, like, the entire circuit, if you see what I mean...

FLATOW: Yeah.

THWAITES: ...so, you know? So I was...

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FLATOW: Was there ever a piece of toast that came out of this toaster?

THWAITES: There was warm bread, and yeah. So, partial success. I'm spinning it. But, yeah. Yeah.

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FLATOW: Let's go to the phones. 1-800-989-8255. Steven in Saint Louis. Hi, Steven.

STEVEN: I'm pretty well, thank you. How are you?

FLATOW: Hi, there. Go ahead.

STEVEN: Yeah. I was curious. If you were to tackle this sort of project again in the future, what would be the next appliance you would like to try to do from scratch, if any?

FLATOW: Yeah. What are you going to do next, for an encore? Or...

THWAITES: Yeah. I mean, weirdly...

FLATOW: ...have you learned your lesson?

THWAITES: ...I should have done - I mean, weirdly, like, a TV company got in touch and was like, oh, do you want to make some more stuff from scratch? And I was kind of, uh, OK. I don't, you know, I don't think they realized quite how sort of long and difficult it is to kind of just make anything from the ground. But - so, yeah. I'm currently trying to make an electric hover mower from scratch. And, yeah.

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THWAITES: And, yeah. It's - and kind of - yeah. I mean, it's sort of - and also, like, a light bulb. I mean - yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let me just give...

THWAITES: It's really hard.

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FLATOW: Let me remind our...

THWAITES: So...

FLATOW: Let me remind - I have to jump in here and remind our audience that I'm Ira Flatow, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. And we're talking about...

THWAITES: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...stuff from scratch with Thomas Thwaites. He's author of the new book "The Toaster Project," which is a really fun read. And so they want to give you your own TV show, where you try to make stuff from scratch. Is that it?

THWAITES: Yeah. Yeah. And it's kind of - it's a lot of fun.

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THWAITES: It's difficult because it's not just me, you know, pottering around kind of doing it, like in the...

FLATOW: Sort of like "Mythbusters" meets "Project Runaway," so to speak. A couple of...

THWAITES: Yeah. I guess.

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THWAITES: Yeah. I guess so. So, yeah. So a lawnmower, some trainers. That's going to be fun. An electric light bulb.

FLATOW: Light bulb? A light bulb should be pretty easy, but, you know...

THWAITES: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...might last as long as the toaster did.

THWAITES: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. It's that tricky, you know, inner atmosphere...

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THWAITES: ...inside the bulb.

FLATOW: It's the glass-blowing technology you have to master, also, on that, I imagine.

THWAITES: Yeah. Yeah. I'm doing, you know, yeah. And it really kind of - when you - you know, that's the thing. You kind of think, OK, a light bulb, you know. It shouldn't be that hard. But actually, you know, when you try and do it, you really kind of realize just how much sort of embodied thoughts and sort of technology is kind of in even the kind of simplest of objects. You know, Edison might have blown his own glass, but, you know, he...

FLATOW: Right.

THWAITES: ...you know, did he kind of - I think he used a vacuum. Did he make his own vacuum pump, and all that kind of thing? And, yeah, and it just brings home how interconnected everything is. And so we (unintelligible)...

FLATOW: And you realize that when...

THWAITES: ...(unintelligible).

FLATOW: Right. And when Edison made the bulb, there's no sense in having a light bulb unless you had the electricity to go into it...

THWAITES: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...and the wires to carry it...

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FLATOW: ...and the generators to make it...

THWAITES: Yeah. Yeah.

FLATOW: ...and all those little parts inside that had to work, like you found out with your toaster.

THWAITES: Yeah, exactly. It's just - it's - I mean, everything we do as individuals, I suppose, is a kind of group effort, in a way.

FLATOW: So where is your toaster now? Can we see it someplace or...

THWAITES: Yeah. I mean, you know, this project I kind of did as, you know, as I was doing my postgraduate degree in design. And so - but - so I just kind of started doing this project and, you know, I was doing other things, other projects as well at the time, you know. But it kind of grew and grew as sort of a vague obsession took hold.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

THWAITES: But yeah - and so yeah. But now, like, amazingly, it's being exhibited for a year in the Science Museum in London, kind of next to Stephenson's rocket, which is sort of one of the sort of most important works...

FLATOW: Wow.

THWAITES: ...like - a very important steam locomotive.

FLATOW: You made the big time, there.

THWAITES: I mean, yeah. It sort of - it's weird. It's kind of pots and pans, which I was, you know, my pots and pans next to this sort of - you know, my badly made toaster next to this extremely important sort of piece of engineering history.

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THWAITES: And it's kind of - it's really cool, but also kind of strange. But, I mean, I guess it's just - we've got to a stage where it's nice to sort of look back and look at, you know, how far we've come, I guess. And, yeah. I mean...

FLATOW: Well, good luck to you. And we'll wait to see the show when it comes out. We'll be looking for it.

THWAITES: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

THWAITES: Yeah. Hopefully, it will be - yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah.

THWAITES: Hopefully it will be good.

FLATOW: Good luck to you. Thomas Thwaites is author of the new book "The Toaster Project," out from Princeton Architectural Press. It's really fun. And if you want to think about how you would make your own toaster or any other do-it-yourself project, I recommend it. Good luck, Thomas. We'll see you again.

THWAITES: OK. Thanks, Ira. Cheers. Bye.

FLATOW: We're going to take a break. When we come back, we're going to talk about some more inventions and how kids might be able to get their inventions into orbit at the International Space Station. Stay with us. We'll be right back, after this break.

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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

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